By Richard Bell
The controversy over Owls Head Provincial Park began on December 18, 2019, when CBC reporter Michael Gorman reported the province had secretly decided on March 13, 2019 to sell Owls Head Provincial Park to a wealthy American who planned to build three golf courses on the site (Lighthouse Links). The decision put in jeopardy hundreds of other parcels of Crown land that the public had previously believed were protected lands that could not be removed from protection without a public hearing.
Upset by the government’s back-room dealings, opponents of the secret deal mobilized quickly, starting with a Facebook site on December 19th that had more than 3,000 members by February 14th. Opponents on the site, now called “Save Little Harbour/Owls Head From Corrupt Backroom Deal,” have marshalled a wide variety of historical and scientific evidence supporting their arguments.
Proponents of the golf course have been making their case on the “Save Little Harbour/Owls Head” site as well as on other Facebook pages like “Save Our Shore,” arguing that the project would provided much needed jobs. As one proponent put it, “I think any business is better than no business.” Because the developer has not made any plans public, it is impossible to estimate what the economic impact of the project might be, or how many permanent and part-time jobs it would create.
Ship Harbour Public Meeting
With the Facebook page growing rapidly, opponents held a public meeting on January 26 at the Ship Harbour Community Centre at which more than 200 people showed up. Patricia Egli from Forest Watch presented her research on the history of Owls Head Provincial Park, showing that for the last 45 years, successive provincial governments have consistently identified Owls Head Provincial Park in plans for protecting Nova Scotia's public lands. Chris Trider, who worked on coastal planning issues for 21 years at the then-Department of Natural Resources, reviewed the scientific evidence on the ecological value of the parklands. Representatives of the Ecology Action Centre and the Canada Parks and Wilderness Society spoke in favour of stopping the sale, as did Mike Collard from the Halifax Wilderness Association, and NS Association of Anglers and Hunters.
During the Q&A session after the formal presentations, several people raised concerns about the need for jobs on the Eastern Shore, arguing for the potential for the proposed golf courses to boost economic development on the shore. (You can watch videos of most of this meeting by going to the Cooperator’s webpage, “Owls Head Resources Page.”)
The province has already issued a Letter of Offer to the developer, Beckwith Gilbert, an American hedge fund manager who has a house in Little Harbour who has bought up more than 21 other properties in Little Harbour in recent years. Concerned that the province might go ahead with the sale, the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association and wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft filed a lawsuit at the end of January asking the court to block the sale.
“Owls Head is another example of the government’s callous disregard for species of conservation concern, and public consultation,” said Bancroft, president of Nature Nova Scotia and a forest biologist with the Department of Natural Resources for 18 years. “As I stated in my affidavit to the court, I believe that Owls Head contains a globally rare coastal habitat ecosystem that is home to several species of conservation concern.”
The applicants’ lawyer, Jamie Simpson, said that the first step in this legal action is to ask the court to waive the requirement that anyone challenging a provincial decision must object within 6 months of the decision. A hearing on this motion is scheduled for March 24, 2020.
“The public could not possibility object to this decision within six months of March 13, 2019, because the government made it in secret,” Simpson said.
The “Public Consultation”
By choosing to sell the land in secret, the government avoided having to hold any form of public consultation to guide its decision. However, according to the Chronicle Herald’s Jim Vibert on February 7, “Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin said Thursday that public engagement, in a fashion approved by the province but conducted by Lighthouse Links, the company that’s proposing to build a multi-course golf resort on the site, is a pre-condition of the land’s sale.” Opponents of the sale condemned the very notion of calling a meeting run by the developer a “public consultation.”
The administrators of Save Little Harbour/Owls Head are now organizing a full-scale rally outside Province House on February 20. The agenda is not final, but both Gary Burrill, leader of the NDP, and Tim Houston, leader of the Progressive Conservatives, will be speaking, along with representatives of a number of environmental groups opposing the sale, including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). (The Cooperator will provide video of the event later in the day.) The NDP has already promised to introduce legislation to ensure that provincial governments conduct a public consultation before delisting any protected land.
In a statement, Burrill said, “As we’ve seen with Owl’s Head, right now, the government can meet behind closed doors and delist land that the community believed to be protected. This process must be more open and involve community input. When it comes to protecting land and wildlife, a decision made at the Cabinet table shouldn’t be the only step to move land from pending protection status to being available for sale.”
Photo: Vision Air